In conversation with Dr Tessa Daffern - teaching spelling

In this conversation, Dr Tessa Daffern explains why an instructional approach for spelling should include phonological, orthographical and morphological word forms. Effective spelling instruction should be explicit and occur frequently from the early years of school [Duration: 21:10].

Transcript

Shannan Salvestro

I'm Shannan Salvestro, Literacy Coordinator, part of the Literacy and Numeracy team for the NSW Department of Education. Today, Dr Tessa Daffern has kindly offered to have a chat with me. Thank you Tessa.

Tessa Daffern

Thank you very much for inviting Shannan.

Shannan Salvestro

That's great. Tessa. You are a senior lecturer at University of Wollongong and today I'm hoping we can focus our discussion around spelling. So first of all, I think the first thing we need to be clear about, can you define spelling? What is spelling?

Tessa Daffern

Well, in the English language, spelling is quite a complex word formation, problem solving process. And, I like to refer to a definition that is provided by some wonderful researchers from the U.S. and they described spelling as the visible representation of word level language using vision symbols in conventional sequences. And we know this as orthography and these conventional sequences represent speech sounds, which we know of as phonology, but they also represent word parts and these word parts, signal meaning and grammar. And we know this as morphology.

We also know that in English, spelling is complex because the language comes from a range of different cultural backgrounds, so for example, many words are derived from Latin and Greek. And so for that reason we can't simply sound out words alone. Many in many cases we need to think about it or draw on our knowledge of where words come from and why they are spelled the way they currently are.

Shannan Salvestro

That's why it, is that a problem solving activity, isn't it? So is spelling only important for that visual representation or for writing?

Tessa Daffern

Sure. Yes, ultimately it's important to be able to produce a written text that is error free, in terms of spelling that is absolutely important because it helps to convey the message, easily and accurately. However, learning to spell is important for other reasons.

For example, we know that, if the child has persistent difficulty with spelling, it can actually be related to, or lead to some social and emotional consequences. And in fact, in a recent study was conducted to demonstrate that the, impact, that ongoing difficulties with spelling and how that actually can impact students, behavioural and emotional aspects of life, they can be developed low self-esteem, they can become anxious and even, in some cases, depressive behaviours can start to appear, and even escalate in some cases in adulthood. We also know that learning to spell and becoming a good speller is important because it can actually help children to develop a range of other metalinguistic skills such as the phonological awareness we know of as their ability to be able to manipulate speech sounds in words. It also can support things like the vocabulary knowledge.

If you think about a child who is trying to focus their attention on spelling a particular word as they're writing, they might just give up on that and choose a word that they know how to spell. And in that process they can actually compromise the precision of the writing. So we know that, learning to spell can support vocabulary development as well and, in turn, that can support writing. Actually there was another research study that was conducted and published this year that shows that children who, finish Kindergarten who have good spelling skills at the end of Kindergarten are those that tend to be the better readers as time goes on. So there's a predicting factor there in terms of reading. So the process of spelling and being able to spell can support learning to read as well.

Shannan Salvestro

So, and speaking of some of those trends and those predictors. There are also trends in those predictors that you see in Kindergarten for later writing achievements. Can you talk a bit about that?

Tessa Daffern

Yeah, absolutely. So for example, there's research to show that the transcription skills of both spelling and handwriting in Kindergarten, predict children's writing success. And this has been found after controlling for other important variables such as children's oral language skills, which we know is important, that the oral language is important. But even after controlling for oral language as well as sight word reading skills and looking at student backgrounds, for example, their demographics and even their verbal and nonverbal IQ, spelling can predict their writing, even for older students. We can see that that prediction occurs, or that pattern occurs as children get older. Indeed, the research that I conducted as part of my own PhD, looked at whether spelling, grammar and punctuation jointly and independently, influence writing quality, the composition of their students' writing and the research they found that, yes, up to 43% of the variants in children's written compositions is explained by those language conventions, spelling, grammar and punctuation. However, the research also found that spelling was the most significant predictor of children's writing, more so than grammar and punctuation. Yeah. Which is interesting.

Shannan Salvestro

And is that what you expected to find?

Tessa Daffern

Actually initially no, I thought that perhaps grammar would have a more influential, I'm predicting factor their spelling, but it turns out that no, its spelling seems to be more influential based on that study of students in Years 3 to 6. So the middle and upper primary school years. And I guess it's partly because there could be a few reasons, but like I said before, if a child struggles with spelling words, they might choose more simple or less precise words when they're writing. They might also write less because it takes longer for them to process and then transcribe all of their ideas, and I do know that there is other research that shows that children who have difficulty with spelling tend to pause more frequently when they're writing. And that pausing.

Shannan Salvestro

I guess that you're losing track of ideas and thoughts...

Dr Tessa Daffern

Constant pausing makes it harder to keep that train of thought going, and so of course...

Shannan Salvestro

It becomes more of an effort....

Tessa Daffern

And they might write less as well because it's just in that given time that they might have in class or whatever the situation might be, they just don't have enough time to express themselves in that timeframe.

Shannan Salvestro

I guess, beyond sort of the student sphere and into adulthood, we do sort of make judgements on or, we get perceptions on somebody because of say, a poor piece of writing with poor spelling.

Tessa Daffern

It is very visible isn't it? Yeah. If you notice a spelling mistake in a report that a teacher writes, it is sent home to the parents or....

Shannan Salvestro

There's a judgment made automatically about that. Yeah.

Tessa Daffern

Even though we know that poor, or difficulty with, spelling, doesn't necessarily mean that the child is not intelligent or that they have a low IQ. In fact, it's quite the contrary. But, still, sadly the reality is that a lot of people will develop this assumption that the person who has produced that text, whether it's in the workplace or you know, a sign in the shops or a street sign that has a spelling mistake, it looks unprofessional. It looks sloppy, and it reflects poorly on that person who has produced that text.

Shannan Salvestro

And we often make judgments around that. So if spelling is the visual representation of words, oral language and phonological awareness would actually be something that is really important before the spelling is, is formerly taught or, introduced, so what are your thoughts on the importance of, oral language and phonological awareness? Yes

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. Oral language and phonological awareness are critical to supporting the development of spelling. And because if you think about it as a person, as a child, wishes to write something down as a visible representation, they need to know what that word is that they want to write. They need to have that word or those words in their oral language or in their vocabulary. And as they do so in their mind they're hearing the sounds of that word and that's one stepping stone to help them then translate and then transcribe that into that visible representation or you know, in other words, to encode that or spell that word, so if a student has come to school with rich oral language skills and an awareness of how our words can be similar in their sounds, I might have rhyming patterns, for example. It does help them to develop that knowledge or that aspect of the spelling system more easily.

Shannan Salvestro

So is that something that, teachers should focus on early in Kindergarten as soon as they come to school? Should that be a big focus.

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. In the early stages of formal schooling, oral language and phonological awareness, and I'll include phonics instruction in that. We know that, a meta-analysis that was conducted in the US that drew on many, many studies, empirical studies found that teaching phonics explicitly, is quite effective for children, learning to spell in Kindergarten and in year one. However, that same study and others have found too that, that as children get older, explicit phonics instruction becomes a lot less effective. So even though we know that things like oral language and phonological awareness should be taught in the early years and made to be quite a priority, it doesn't mean that's all you do. Absolutely.

Shannan Salvestro

That's the foundation. And now we've got to keep building on it. Is that, the way to think of it?

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. And so we know that, there's a lot of research that has come out in probably the last decade in the field of learning to spell that tells us that, in fact, students don't develop their phonological shouldn't, need to develop their phonological skills first before they can then develop other skills associated with spelling such as their morphological skills. It's quite the opposite. And we now know quite convincingly that students should be given opportunities to learn about not just the phonological aspects of spelling, but also the morphological aspects of spelling. And even what I described as the orthographic aspect of spelling. That should start early as well. For sure. And in fact, we know that children are capable of developing some orthographic skills through exposure to print even before they have grasped and an understanding of sounds and letter correspondences.

For example, a very young child, maybe even before entering school may, recognise their own name. They might be able to read it. Maybe they can even write it, but they may not necessarily know what each letter represents or how it translates as a speech. Sound, yes. And they might recognise street signs or other common symbols that they see in their environment. So in a way children can actually start to develop some sensitivity to letter patterns and the visual aspect of some of the words before they've even started to grasp some of the phonological elements.

Shannan Salvestro

I've heard you talk about two main approaches to spelling instruction, so have a chat about what those two approaches are and the differences between them.

Tessa Daffern

Sure. So, since the 1970s, the most common approach to teaching spelling has been, informed by what we call stage theories of spelling development. With a combination of, just a rote learning of words. In terms of the stage approach to spelling, it is a very linear, assumption of learning to spell where the idea is that students develop developmentally, they develop their funnel logical skills first, and then taking on that now Piagetian notion of cognitive development. They're not actually ready developmentally ready to proceed to the orthographic elements of the language. And then after that they are then ready to develop morphological skills. So taking a stage, or linear approach to spelling development, means that potentially you're not actually teaching aspects of morphology, for instance, until children are much, much older. But we know now from quite a lot of research, there's an arrange of different, nonlinear models of spelling development that have emerged. And collectively they, they tell us that in fact children are capable of drawing on phonological, orthographic and morphological skills from the early years of learning to write. And so we need to provide students with those opportunities to learn some of those regularities of the language that are beyond just phonology.

Shannan Salvestro

So the research is telling us that that would be the more effective approach.

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. So, so rather than just focusing on phonics, for instance, in Kindergarten, and, in Year 1, while we certainly must be doing that, we can also teach them some elements of morphology and letter patterns that are common in words.

Shannan Salvestro

So I guess there's power in explicitly teaching those aspects of phonological, the orthographic and the morphological, so is it just explicit teaching that will make an impact or should we be doing things as well?.

Tessa Daffern

So we do know that explicit teaching does make a difference that's a given. Yeah. We know that

Shannan Salvestro

They're not going to pick up those skills naturally. They need to be explicitly taught.

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. But I think another element to explicit teaching is making sure that what is explicitly taught is what needs to be explicitly taught. So informed by quality assessment. So there's no point teaching something explicitly if a child already knows it. Likewise, there's no point teaching something explicitly if it's just too difficult for certain students to learn and they're not quite ready yet. So for example, when it comes to phonological aspects of spelling, you wouldn't be teaching them how to segment and blend, individual speech sounds in words that have many syllables. If they can't do that with a one or two syllable word, you know, you need to take some of those sort of progressions in into consideration.

So good assessment practices can inform what is explicitly taught to ensure that there is a range of teaching that is explicit, that covers those three main areas of spelling, but also, we want to provide children with many opportunities to practice and consolidate those skills and there's lots of different ways we can do that, including drawing attention to those patterns and rules or generalisations that are present in words that come from either children's writing and also from a range of quality literary texts.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah. So I guess that that, you know, a wide exposure to print is going to be very beneficial. The more they're seeing it and exposed to it, that's going to add to their learning experience.

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. So the more that children are exposed and more frequently and regularly, once a week won't quite cut it, but a little bit every day, maybe 15 to 20 minutes of explicit teaching in spelling that shows the connections between children's reading and writing can make a big difference, and also another element to learning to spell or helping children to learn new skills in spelling I should say, is to give the students many opportunities to handwrite even older students to handwrite words and, and, and put them into context in sentences. Especially when it comes to morphological aspects of spelling. The more that children hand write, the more it helps more easily. It helps them to retain that knowledge and, into their working memory. And then long term memory.

Shannan Salvestro

There is importance, there's still a place for handwriting.

Tessa Daffern

Yes. So the actual formation of the letters can actually help children remember the letters. And so handwriting is actually quite closely connected to teaching spelling and it should be taught all the way through schooling and can be connected with spelling quite easily.

Something that's coming through for me here is that we, and I'm sure we don't do this, but we should never think of spelling in isolation or is it as an isolated skill? It just, it's the connections of spelling with all of these other things, they all come together. You know, just talking about the connections with vocabulary, the connections, reading of course with writing, it's not something that's just an isolated thing.

Tessa Daffern

And in fact, you know, I know the teachers and very, very busy. I've been there myself many times and it's very hard to try and fit everything into the busy, busy school day that when you're teaching spelling, if you're teaching explicitly at across those three linguistic word forms, you're actually enabling many opportunities to, for students to be exposed to print, looking at these words in different contexts, in different texts, to develop their vocabulary knowledge, to develop their speech, and precise speech as well, and so actually when you're teaching spelling in that kind of way, you're not just teaching spelling, you're actually teaching many other important language skills. And I think that there's one at one other thing that really does help with teachers and teaching explicitly, and that is, helping teachers to build capacity in their knowledge base because to be able to teach explicitly, you need to also have the meta-language.

Shannan Salvestro

Is it important for students to hear that and be using that meta-language.

Tessa Daffern

It can be very helpful for students to use that meta-language because it gives them a tool to be able to explain how words are constructed. And children do find that very empowering to be able to explain, the strategies that they're using, the strategies that perhaps work well for certain ways and less well for other words. And they can't explain or articulate those strategies without using proper meta-language to do with spelling.

Shannan Salvestro

So it is very important for teachers to build their capacity so that, they are providing that for the students.

Tessa Daffern

Absolutely. And it takes time. There's a lot of linguistic terminology for teachers to get their head around, but as teachers start to use the terminology and get their heads around all the linguistic elements over time, they'll start to more confident in that themselves.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah. Well thank you. I love talking about spelling. So that was lovely to talk about that with you.

Tessa Daffern

Thank you so much Shannan.

Shannan Salvestro

After this podcast, you might like to read some of the professional papers that Tessa has suggested for us. The links are in the podcast notes. Also, follow the link you see there for the literacy and numeracy website where you'll find details of some of the further professional learning opportunities and resources. Bye for now.

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